The absence of the Ardennes from the parcours of this year’s BinckBank Tour might have limited Tim Wellens’ prospects of final overall victory, but although the terrain wasn’t exactly tailored to his measurements, the Belgian tried on a searing attack for size in the closing kilometres of stage 6 in Sittard-Geleen.
The stage was billed as a sort of Amstel Gold Race-lite, with the road dipping and rising constantly as the peloton wound it way through the rippling hills of Limburg for the afternoon. Wellens first produced a sharp acceleration on the Schatsberg to pare down the front group, before he went clear alone on the Windraak with a little over 8km remaining, opening a lead of 13 seconds.
Zdenek Stybar (Quick-Step) was the first to bridge across to Wellens, followed in time by Dylan van Baarle (Team Sky), Gregor Muhlberger (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Max Schachmann (Quick-Step). This quintet led the race into the final kilometre, where Muhlberger produced a canny attack to claim a surprising stage win. Wellens, the day's primary aggressor, had to settle for winning the sprint for second place, 3 seconds behind the Austrian.
"When I was solo, it was looking good, I had a good advantage but then Stybar came back and we were looking a bit at each other. We were a little bit afraid of each other," Wellens told Cyclingnews as he sat on the steps of the Lotto Soudal bus afterwards. "The others came back and there we were five of us. Then the Bora got a little bit lucky and he got away. The feelings were very good, but it was difficult to get a big gap."
Wellens won the BinckBank Tour – then known as the Eneco Tour – in 2014 and 2015, forging overall victory on each occasion with stage victory in the Ardennes, at La Redoute and Houffalize, respectively. For good measure, he won in Houffalize last year en route to second place overall, but this year's truncated route has rather complicated his task.
"For me it's very difficult, because the stage I win every year isn't on the route anymore. It's hard to make the difference. I think if today was the Ardennes stage, I would have been close because I have really good legs," Wellens said. "But it’s like that, and you do what you can."
Wellens goes into Sunday’s concluding stage in the Flemish Ardennes in 8th place overall, 37 seconds down on overall leader Matej Mohoric (Bahrain-Merida), but just 5 seconds off a podium berth. The tight margins atop the overall standings might prove a blessing as much as a curse, though Mohoric showed some faint signs of weakness in Saturday’s breathless final hour.
"I think if you really want to win the GC, you have to go from far away, but I think the favourites will look at each other, too, so it's hard to make the difference. You will need to have a bit of luck," Wellens said. "I always said that this weekend's stages would be the most important. Today, Mohoric started to crack a little bit. Tomorrow there will be almost an extra hour of racing, so it will be really hard."
Worlds and Canada
Wellens is something of a rarity among Belgian riders. For most of his fellow countrymen, April is the defining month of the season, but the Sint-Truiden native has made a habit of performing strongly in the final weeks of the season. "They’re the races where I do best," he said. The BinckBank Tour is part of a well-worn path that leads to the Canadian WorldTour races next month. Already winner of the GP de Montréal in 2015, Wellens will cross the Atlantic, before turning his attention to the World Championships.
Most have, by this point, read about the horrors of the Innsbruck course, which includes some 5,000 metres of total climbing and the vicious ascent of Gramartboden – the so-called ‘Highway to Höll’ – before the finish. Wellens went to sample the course for himself in June, and came away inspired by what he saw.
"It's really hard, you have to be in your best shape with your lowest weight possible because of all the altitude metres gained," Wellens said. "For the last climb, I don't think you really need to be a puncheur, I think it’s more that you need to have the freshest legs of the peloton because it's so steep that everybody will almost walk up that last hill."
Received wisdom suggests that the rigours of a Grand Tour would help a rider keep his weight in check ahead of this mountainous Worlds, but Wellens never even considered making his Vuelta a España debut. He will stick to a tried and tested regimen as he prepares for his favourite time of the year.
"For me personally, I'm better when I do training at home instead of racing," Wellens said. "I can train a lot behind a motorcycle, I can hurt myself in training, so I have always my best shape when I come out of training."
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